How a new initiative aims to promote women and bridge polar connectivity barriers

By Danita Catherine Burke - May 16, 2019
Signposts show distances from Kangerlussauaq Airport in Greenland. (Kevin McGwin)

There are amazing women in polar scholarship and representation, but all too often their contributions are under-represented and under-valued. Barriers such as a funding limitations, geographic distances, administrative responsibilities and family responsibilities impact networking and information-sharing potential. These barriers are amplified by problems such as sexism and a glass ceiling for women in academia.

Barriers impact the capacity of many women to attend traditional networking and to be represented in the dialogue of who are experts in their fields. Motivated by my journey and other women who have also faced these access barriers, I founded the Women in the Arctic and Antarctic (formerly known as Women in the Arctic) in September 2018. This initiative helps to complement existing networking opportunities by bridging access barriers to promote the inclusion of more women in polar research and representation in an open and easy-to-use networking and information sharing space.

Connectivity, Access and Building Networks

For over a decade I have researched international politics as it pertains to the Arctic and the North. I was inspired to explore the Arctic and North by my upbringing in rural Newfoundland, an island off the east coast of Canada. I grew up living a semi-traditional lifestyle in a community that is big by Newfoundland standards, but quite small to many people from outside. I did my early post-secondary studies at a local college. Later I studied at Memorial University of Newfoundland in the provincial capital, St. John’s, at one of the campuses of the province’s only university.

I secured a scholarship to undertake my PhD studies in the U.K. and this put me into a new and unfamiliar landscape. To say I was a fish out of water would be an understatement. I discovered that I was extremely disconnected from others in Arctic research and I could not find an easy and accessible way to bridge this gap. I had no network of polar scholars to call upon to form a panel to apply to conferences and workshops to increase the likelihood that our papers would be accepted. I did not know any senior polar scholars who could advise me on Arctic fieldwork design and implementation such as need-to-know information like when and how to get research licenses, how to access indigenous language translation services and best practices for community engagement, budgeting and travel costs for Arctic travel and how to select the best methodology for the field conditions I would likely experience.

Ultimately, my lack of a network impacted initial attitudes toward me. No doubt reception to me was influenced by my academic inexperience which may have made me appear more of a nuisance than an asset to these people at that stage in my career. The experience made it very difficult to get genuine help and feedback and caused self-doubt, particularly as I was separated from my support system. There was an ocean between myself and my family.

My funders, the Rothermere Foundation Trust, were generous to make the PhD opportunity possible; a funding mechanism originally established in the early 20th century to help Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans to get education abroad to bring back home. I had kind supervisors who were helpful with broader course related advice, but they were not Arctic specialists. Finding birds of a feather in Arctic research was a major challenge.

My break came when my funding body offered me an invitation to attend a closed Arctic event hosted at their institute in Oxford. There I met Shelagh Grant, an established Canadian Arctic scholar. She took the time to give me some sound advice and literature suggestions. She impressed upon me the need to experience the Arctic if I wished to continue as a polar researcher. Months after the conference she helped me again. Grant took the time to talk with me about my project over telephone and even mailed me an encouraging letter with some printed journal articles that I continue to use to this day. Grant was the first senior polar scholar to take the time and help me navigate how to undertake polar research. She treated me as someone who could have value as an academic. It gave me hope. I built on that network foundation to be where I am today.

Inspiration behind the Women in the Arctic and Antarctic initiative

My story is not unique. I know that others struggle to connect with people in their field, lacking networks, means and opportunity to engage. Gender factors amplify barriers. The lack of women role-models in senior academic positions, the under-citation of research written by female scholars, sexism and more all add to the connectivity issues. My experience dealing with connectivity motivated me to establish the Women in the Arctic and Antarctic initiative.

Initially the initiative was called Women in the Arctic. I decided to change name after discussing networking with Antarctic scholars. I recognized that many practical issues faced by Arctic researchers and representatives also impact those working on Antarctica. As such, I expanded the initiative.

There are very practical barriers that contribute to connectivity problems in polar studies. Travelling can be very time consuming and expensive, particularly outside of Scandinavia and western Europe. If you are working on a short time frame for an event, travelling long distances or travelling to a place with limited accessibility, this is a major problem.

The time and cost of travel, particularly for people travelling in and around the Northern parts of North American and Russian and Antarctica discourage mobility. Other barriers, such as available time off work and travel visa issues, add additional barriers. Similarly, child and elder care disproportionately falls on women, taking away time to participate in add-on parts of work, such as organizing or presenting at a conference. While doing this work is frequently motivated by love and family ties, it is also physically and emotionally demanding, time consuming and largely unpaid. I cannot count the number of times I have been at conferences and women there have had to leave early because their childcare ended or their children finished school at 3pm, for example, so they had to leave. The result is that a lot of the networking that happens at supper, at after-conference coffees and evening events is not accessible to them.

Overcoming Barriers

The Women in the Arctic and Antarctic initiative aims to help overcome access barriers to traditional networking and information sharing. It helps to circumvent barriers to networking by making networking accessible to wider audiences, open to an international audience to participate from wherever they are in the world and easy to use.

The initiative is a space open for all to use to develop networks and information sharing, but the people featured on the website profiles are only women. This helps to cut through the noise of gender amplified barriers and keep the spotlight on women in their professional capacity. As such the initiative provides a platform that is inclusive and gender positive, promotes women in polar research and representation and helps people learn more about them, their work and how to contact them in order further involve them in scholarship and representation. There is also information on a wide range of resources, such as networking initiatives, conferences, funding opportunities, and research and fieldwork resources available.

There are a variety of experts and representatives featured on the website. People are featured with a background in a wide range of subjects such as international politics, human geography, cultural anthropology, environmental science, gender studies, education, arts, marine biology, biogeography, engineering, resource extraction and marine ecology. Their profiles provide background on the education and fieldwork experiences of experts, some context about why they pursue polar studies and information about a selection of their research (if applicable), how to learn more about these individuals, as well as how to contact them.

To learn more about these and other amazing women who are part of our network or if you would like to participate, please visit

The author is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellow based at the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.